I have a picture I took thirty years ago of a white clapboard house partially obscured by brilliant, blazing leaves of autumn. The photo, which I framed and hung in my Upper West Side apartment, represented something beatific, something out of reach. I could only imagine what it would be like to live in a house like that.

The lyre-leaved sage emerged with vigor the following spring. A true perennial, it returned in the same place it had been planted, and then some. Several descendants appeared nearby. They announced themselves in rosette bursts of dark green leaves alive with purpled veins. Started by seeds, I thought. Happy ones. Within weeks, tall stalks—dotted with rows of pale blue-violet blossoms—grew straight up from the leafy centers. Each flower had a triangular yawn with a wide protruding lower lip and thin top one. Noticing the sage’s effortless replication and early color among the other sleepy perennials, I let them sprout forth.

Spring at my house is like a duel in an old western. My husband wields the Home Depot catalog, packed with tons of stuff for DIY backyard projects. My weapon of choice is the Crate & Barrel catalog, loaded with staged backyard idylls that make me want to reach for the lemonade pitcher.

A little over three years ago a friend of mine in South Florida sent me a Craigslist post from a gentleman in the Los Angeles area seeking writers for a new website. The writers had to fit two criteria. They should be situated on any part of the planet, the weirder and more varied the location the better, and they must be able to write good creative non-fiction. When I received the email I was holed up in a mansion bordering a golf course on the outskirts of Cascais, Portugal with an injured leg and a bored and shitty attitude. I fit the first part of the bill, for I was definitely living in a weird and remote location, but I was no writer, oh no, never would be. Not me.

My garden taunted me all winter long. And that’s a long time in Maine. For several weeks, the snow was so high that the small wrought-iron fences that give the garden some sort of organization and form were completely invisible. I couldn’t wait until spring to dig my hands into the soil again.

My husband always corrects me when I call the area behind our house a “garden.” “It’s a yard,” he says, and I think he is wrong. A yard, to me, is some sort of vast expanse of grass, maybe some bushes and hedges. Perhaps a flower bed.  I am sure that there is a dictionary definition that would clear all this up, but frankly, I am just not that interested in the terminology.

What we have is a garden.

What we have is an unruly, wild, mossy wildlife area. In the fall when we moved in, the entire garden was shaded from a couple of huge trees and a forest of smaller ones. There are mysterious and as of yet unidentified bushes of various sizes growing out of a stone wall that keeps our house from falling into the brook. Because we also have a brook.  The lower half of the garden is a favorite of the neighborhood kids. There is some sort of a bamboo growing along the brook that’s great for forts, paintball fights and for hunting down frogs and helicopter-sized dragonflies.

I have to admit that I had some romantic notions about gardening when we bought the house. The shade, the seclusion made it all seem very cozy. As I was getting acquainted with the garden I found all sorts of cute surprises – a garden gnome, a bird feeder, a couple of stepping stones, little frog statuettes and a stone turtle. Lovely, right?

The one freaky discovery I had was a cross nailed to one of the trees. It’s a small, ornate cross and it’s positioned where a larger limb must have been cut off. Maybe lighting hit there? Who knows? And even though I am not a cross-type girl, you just don’t remove something like that. What if that’s the only little piece of protection that’s keeping our house intact?

But back to the garden… So, those romantic notions of gardening quickly disappeared as the leaves fell from the trees. All 97 million of them. Pretty soon, gardening became nothing more than leaf management. Sure, they were yellow, and red, and rusty, and orange, and crunchy, and had that amazing fall-leaf smell. But I was knee-deep in them, with no end in sight.

The first snow was a relief. By spring, all of those leaves on the ground will become good, nutritious compost for the soil, I thought.

Not so. Spring leaf management is similar to fall leaf management. The only difference is that there are juicy, fat worms between the layers of wet leaves, along with more unidentified sprigs of life – bright green, cheery, hopeful.

While in the fall I was happy to let things take their natural course in the garden, the spring is making me nervous. I am responsible for this living, breathing piece of land behind my house. I should know what it needs, right? Trimming? More water? Less water? Sun? Shade? Should I just let it be?

Landscapers have come and gone, shaking their heads, making me feel like a bad parent for not forking over large sums of money and also for not doing it all on my own. I feel like the working mother of a piece of land.

I am looking out at the garden as I write this. The sloping terrace with its hidden steps, the curve of the brook, the lone pine tree – I still find it all very soothing. So I go outside from time to time to check things out. I rake some leaves. Pick up a couple of broken branches. Sweep the dirt off the stepping stones. I’ll buy some pansies this week and fill the planters on the garage and in our windows.

Slowly, leaf by leaf, the garden and I come to an understanding. I do the best I can. She will keep the leaves on the trees as long as possible next fall. I will hire the weird Italian man with the scar to do a bit of cleanup. She will make sure that the hibiscus bush produces golf ball-sized blooms.

It will all work out.